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Déjà Vu All Over Again?

In 1967 too, a U.S. president told Israel to rely on the international community and resist going to war. In the end, Israel acted on its own as it became clear that international efforts were not succeeding.
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol at Randolf Airbase, Texas, June 1, 1968.

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol at Randolf Airbase, Texas, June 1, 1968.
Photo Credit: David Elfan/Government Press Office

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The current clash between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu over U.S. policy regarding Iran’s efforts to secure a nuclear capacity calls to mind the contretemps between President Lyndon Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1967.

At that time the disagreement was over the proper response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s threats to close the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping – a crippling blow to Israel’s economy – and to attack Israel from the Sinai in a war of policide against the Jewish state.

Then too, a U.S. president told Israel to rely on the international community and resist going to war. In the end, Israel acted on its own as it became clear that international efforts were not succeeding. The risks became intolerable and what became known as the Six-Day War ensued.

Despite the virtual certainty that sanctions against Iran are not deterring its nuclear development, President Obama still wants more time. This even though there are numerous loopholes in the sanctions and Russia and China are not cooperating in any event. Indeed, Iran just recently demonstrated that it is hardly isolated in the international community when it hosted a conference attended by most of the nations of the world.

The president has given no quarter to Israel, refusing to concede that maybe Israel has a point that the sanctions approach has failed.

In 1967 Israel from the start was prepared to go it alone but was accused of seeking to push the United States into war. This time, even more so than in 1967, careful deliberation is needed – by Mr. Netanyahu no less than Mr. Obama. Because the notion that the U.S. is being drawn into war by Israel is an incendiary one in a war-weary America and fraught with a danger all its own.

The New York Times spelled it all out, in blatantly incendiary fashion, in a September 4 editorial titled “No Rush to War”:

Amid the alarming violence in the Arab world, a new report about the costs of a potential war with Iran got lost this week. It says an attack by the United States could set back Iran’s nuclear program four years at most, while a more ambitious goal – ensuring Iran never reconstitutes its nuclear program or ousting the regime – would involve a multiyear conflict that could engulf the region.The significance of the report by The Iran Project is not just its sober analysis but the nearly three dozen respected national security experts from both political parties who signed it: including two former national security advisers, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski; former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering; and the retired Gen. Anthony Zinni.

Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is trying to browbeat president Obama into a pre-emptive strike. On Tuesday, he demanded that the United States set a red line for military action and said those who refuse “don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” Later, Mr. Obama telephoned him and rejected the appeal. On Friday, Mr. Netanyahu suggested in an interview that Israel cannot entirely rely on the United States to act against Iran’s program.

Leaders need flexibility and ambiguity, not just hard and fast red lines. And it is dangerous for Mr. Netanyahu to try to push the president into a corner publicly and raise questions about Washington. Is that really the message he wants to send to Tehran?

There is no reason to doubt president Obama’s often repeated commitment to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon. But 70 percent of Americans oppose a unilateral strike on Iran, according to a new poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and 59 percent said if Israel bombs Iran and ignites a war, the United States should not come to its ally’s defense.

So there you have it. Despite the fact that by any measure there is no apparent prospect that the sanctions are working or will work, the Times has the audacity to charge Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose country is at greater risk from a nuclear Iran than any other country and who only asked that the U.S. not stand in its way, with “trying to browbeat President Obama into a pre-emptive strike” and “push[ing] the president into a corner publicly….”

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